What’s the real value of a humble Dollar/Pound? For those champagne swillers who braved a loud and angry protest outside Sotheby’s Contemporary Auction Wednesday night, Warhol’s One Dollar Bill, hand painted in 1962, sold for a whopping £20.9m (estimated at only £13-18m). The enormous disparity between the mob outside, revealed to be a cleaning service recently dropped by Sotheby’s after long campaigning for an hourly living wage of £9.15 per hour, and collectors inside, could not be more pointed. I guess when one’s so intent on grabbing that all important painting, the last thing one thinks of is how super clean the carpet is and how some poor sod made its pile worth the tread of expensive soles.
Though while the protest chanted “Tax the rich” (direct quote, having myself pushed through the mob to get to the other mob inside), chastising in general the monied classes, it feels as if Sotheby’s itself was actually more under the spotlight in the event. Aside from the big noise made by the Trade Union campaigning on behalf of National Gallery workers, the shafting meted out to the cleaning company CCML has gone relatively unnoticed with little publicity. And yes, champagne and smothering treatment was smoothly delivered to its punters, whetting wallets; the auctioneer rallying the crowd to heighten the excitement, persuasively teasing out bids to hit the next half a million mark. Most notably, a Frank Auerbach study for the head of Gerda Boehm estimated at £250-250k saw a squabbling between bidders, going for £2m. An impressive performance, with Sotheby’s coining its most successful results for a contemporary sale ever: a total of £130m.
Yet certain items failed to sell – such as the interminably overestimated Cy Twombly’s See Naples and Die – indicating that a big name is not necessarily guarantee of its desirability. That or people have finally realized Cy Twombly is nothing short of terrible. But the biggest embarrassment following the success of the Auerback and Lucien Freud’s Four Eggs on a Plate (a very expensive breakfast at just under £250k per egg!) was Bacon’s Study for a Pope I of 1961: by far the golden goose the auction had been banking on, preceded by a rigorous marketing campaign and hype. Oddly enough after the flurry of excitement, this was an absolute damp squib with no one stumping up to meet the £25m estimate. Are these collectors lacking in change from the back of the sofa, or is it that the bubble is bursting for these works as it slowly dawns that, actually, maybe Cy Twombly is just a load of infantile scribbles? To expect £25million is insane, even for a Bacon: it is only a study – yes an important one, but a study nonetheless and much less assured than his other Popes – and perhaps the collectors knew it. A senior international specialist in contemporary art from Sotheby’s, Oliver Barker, remarked that “It wasn’t the night for that one picture”. Which begs the question – when is the right night, if hyped up protests, schmoozing and a supremely slick auctioneer performance can’t do it? It feels almost as if each house is vying to compete with the record breaking Gauguin sale to the Qatari royal family for $300m. How shameless.
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